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Don Stewart :: What Is the Canon of Scripture?

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Don Stewart

The most popular term used in describing the books that belong in the Bible is the word "canon." The English word canon comes from the Greek word kanon, which means, "a rule or standard for testing straightness." A canonical book is one that measures up to the standard of Holy Scripture. Thus the word canon is used to describe those books recognized as divinely inspired of God.

The Word Was Originally Used of Doctrines

Historically, the word was first used by the church of those doctrines that were accepted as the rule of faith and practice. The canon was the "rule of faith" by which Christians lived.

Over time, the terms "canon" and "canonical" came to be applied to either a divinely inspired writing or the entire catalogue or list of sacred books that were recognized as belonging to God's authoritative Word. A book with God's unique authority behind it was part of the canon. The rule of faith had now been forever memorialized in a limited number of sacred books - the canon of Scripture.

By the fourth century A.D., Greek Christians had given the word a technical religious meaning-the canon of Scripture consisted of the sacred books that God had divinely inspired and given to humanity.

Therefore, the term canon, or canonical, can be used of a single biblical book, a group of biblical books, the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the entire Bible.

The Canon Was Divinely Inspired of God but Recognized by Humanity

The people of God have recognized the various books of the Bible as authoritative Scripture. It must be stressed that the books that are found in the biblical canon were authoritative before they were placed in any collection of sacred books or before any council recognized them as authoritative. The fact that an "official" list of authoritative writings was made by the church does not make the various books more sacred or divinely inspired than when they were originally written.

Consequently the Bible is not an authoritative collection of sacred books; it is a collection of books that were authoritative when they were written. This is an important distinction. If one calls the canon an authoritative collection of books then someone, or some group, must give them that authority. However if the canon is a collection of authoritative books, then it is not necessary to look to some outside authority to confer some status on these books.

God Determined the Extent of the Canon

Although we will examine the historical process as to how certain books came to be accepted as Holy Scripture and how others were rejected, ultimately we believe that it is God who decided this question. He was the final determiner of which books belonged and which did not. Humankind merely recognized the books that God had divinely inspired. While the recognition of the canon grew over time, the divine inspiration of the books that make up the canon was there from the beginning.

There Is a Difference Between Canonizing and Collection

Thus, a distinction needs to be made between canonizing and collecting. No human being or council can pronounce a work canonical or scriptural, yet humans were responsible for collecting and preserving such works. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the church because they were formally included in some list-the church included them in the canon because they already regarded them as divinely inspired by God. Therefore the books we posses as Scripture were first divinely inspired by God, and then recognized as such by humanity.

The Canon Equals the Scripture

The books that belong to the canon are the books that are authoritative Scripture. Some people in the past have viewed the canon as containing all those books that the church found edifying - not necessarily books that are Holy Scripture. The problem with this approach is that it confuses people as to which books speak with divine authority and which books are merely helpful. It is much better to have the canon equated with only the sacred books that God has revealed to humanity.

The Importance of the Issue of the Canon

The issue of the canon of Scripture is of immense importance. If God has revealed Himself to humanity in written form, then it is of supreme importance to know exactly which writings come from Him; for His words are the words of life. In Deuteronomy we read of the importance of the words of the Lord.

They are not just idle words for you - they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess (Deuteronomy 32:47).

Jesus said that His words were "spirit and life."

It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life (John 6:63).

The Bible has a different status from any other book ever written. This is true for books that are written by Christians as well as non-Christians. No other writing, no matter how valuable, can compare with Holy Scripture. The Scriptures are the authoritative standard. The purpose of a canon is to distinguish truth from error. Once a canon exists everything written later can be tested by it.

Therefore the question of the extent of the canon is a valid one for there is no Bible without a canon


The fact that God has revealed Himself to humanity by means of sacred writings leads us to consider the question of the extent of these sacred books or the "canon." The term "canon," or "canonical," can refer to a single book, a group of books, the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the entire volume of Scripture. The important thing to note is that God divinely inspired various books while humanity recognized what God has done. Humans have no authority to pronounce any book as being divinely inspired. This can only come from God Himself.

While some people in the past have viewed the canon as more than divinely authoritative books, it is best to equate the canon with Holy Scripture. Consequently it is crucial that we know which books came from God and which did not. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that we know the exact extent of the canon because the words of God are the words of life.


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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